Inside Story

Current affairs and culture from Australia and beyond

You’ve got to have friends

Anna Cristina Pertierra looks at what social media tells us about communication

Anna Cristina Pertierra 29 July 2011 2676 words

Tales from Facebook
By Daniel Miller | Polity | $29.95

The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media
By Ilana Gershon | Cornell University Press | $37.95

Friendship: Development, Ecology, and Evolution of a Relationship
By Daniel J. Hruschka | University of California Press | $42.95

IN THE Philippines on New Year’s Day 2009, my first and oldest friend, Anabel, suffered a brain aneurysm and fell into a coma. Ten days later, shortly before her thirty-third birthday, her life-support was withdrawn and she died surrounded by loved ones. As it happened, the evening before her aneurysm we exchanged several texts agreeing that it would be too hard to meet up in the chaos of Manila on New Year’s Eve. “Be careful it is crazy out there!” read her last message to me.

In the weeks after Anabel’s death, I really struggled with these text messages, which lay in the inbox of my old half-broken mobile phone. I needed a new phone, but it felt as though shifting to a new model would break the last link to my relationship with Anabel. Copying the messages over to a new phone, or even typing them up to store in my computer hard drive, wouldn’t be the same; they would become mere copies of the original texts. One hears stories of people holding on to last answering machine messages, or storing away last Christmas cards, and for me the last pieces of my friendship with Anabel lay not only in the characters on a little screen, but also in the particular device – a cheap and ugly pink Motorola – on which I had received them.

Anabel was an active blogger and had over 600 friends on Facebook. As a musician and poet, she was part of a thriving creative scene in Manila, a popular woman at the prime of her life in a community full of people who excel at social networking, online or off. Because of the time and place in which she died, for all of us who grieved – family, friends, colleagues and even some fans – the mourning process was very much mediated by Facebook. It was on Facebook that many people learned of, and then expressed grief over, her passing. It was on Facebook that Anabel’s sisters could post updates on her decline for the ten days she was in a coma, and it was also on Facebook that fundraising events for hospital bills were organised and details of the wake announced. For friends and family abroad, Facebook represented the only way of sharing in the mourning process. Even for those people present and active in Anabel’s everyday life, Facebook was the best method of coordinating and communicating in the weeks of shock and crisis that required not only a processing of emotions, but also the solving of many practical problems. For one or two people who had stubbornly resisted Facebook earlier, it was Anabel’s death that prompted them to join, because Facebook was the central space in which people could come together and express their grief in a public manner.

Many friends wrote “to” Anabel by posting messages on her Facebook profile, but a memorial page was also set up in her honour. People wrote poems, recorded songs, compiled photomontages, or wrote about their memories of Anabel, and in doing so knowingly shared these communications with all of her Facebook “friends.” Others preferred to communicate through private messages – in part to share with their confidantes some meta-commentary on how different people navigated the rather public nature of this outpouring of emotions via Facebook. Confronted with the quandaries of Facebook mourning etiquette, people faced decisions about how to express their grief with a consciousness of the medium: is it more appropriate to post public status updates or private messages? Do I feel better by writing “to” Anabel directly or by writing to her relatives instead?

This is death and friendship in the age of new media, and such experiences have not gone unnoticed among the growing group of scholars who, alongside artists, journalists and other cultural commentators, ponder the intersection of relationships and technologies in a world in which everything and everyone seems increasingly to be lived electronically. In Tales from Facebook, a study of how people use Facebook on the Caribbean island of Trinidad, anthropologist Daniel Miller presents a series of deceptively simple portraits of people going about their lives and incorporating Facebook into their everyday practices of communication. Occasionally the portraits reveal moments of drama that compare to my own example of virtual mourning; in fact, the opening portrait tells of a marriage disintegrating thanks to photos and activities revealed via Facebook. But more frequently, the people presented by Miller are just living normally – playing games, making chit-chat, commenting on the actions of their friends and relatives, doing much the sort of thing that has long taken place in small island communities. Now, though, those daily interactions can include migrants on the other side of the world, or senior citizens with mobility problems, or shy young men who lack confidence in face-to-face interactions.

Stories like these are an important counterbalance to the sensationalist accounts of fraud, bullying, predation and surveillance that often appear in articles about social networking. Miller is also keen to defend the authenticity of these interactions against the sorts of popular media commentaries that get mileage from complaining that new media have allowed us to withdraw from “the real world.” Says Miller: “In conversations about Facebook, there is a common theme that pertains to a fear of the modern. This is the fear that we are all becoming more superficial, that Facebook friends represent a kind of inflation that diminishes the value of prior or true friendship. I see no evidence that this is the case.” It is not that Miller argues for Facebook as inherently liberating either; the point is that it is people and their practices that make Facebook what it is, whether in Trinidad or in the Philippines.

It is relevant to mention here that I have worked closely with Daniel Miller and, in a slightly grim coincidence, he was undertaking related research on the Philippines when my friend Anabel suffered her aneurysm. But his research into Facebook found many other examples in which people going through difficult times found genuine comfort in social support provided to them via Facebook. Back in Trinidad, Miller observes that “Facebook was the public sharing of suffering, the feeling that Facebook was a ‘witness’ to suffering that might be cathartic in its own right. The fact that Facebook is made up of actual people may give it unprecedented power and plausibility to act in this meta-person-like manner.” If one is feeling sad and lonely, or grief-stricken over a death, the experience of being witnessed is of considerable comfort. The power of Facebook as an ever-present witness makes it more than just a stage for public performances; Facebook can become a sort of friend in itself.

Facebook’s capacity to make space for the performance or expression of relationships is taken up in another way by communications scholar Ilana Gershon. In The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media, Gershon wants us to understand how new media must be navigated not only in the building of relationships in the contemporary world, but also in their collapse. Working mostly with college students as informants – and snippets of their interviews reveal Gershon’s wonderful empathy and enthusiasm for her students – the author looks at how romantic relationships are ended using Facebook, email, text messages and other media forms. Many young people in Gershon’s study acknowledge the importance of disclosing their relationship status on a Facebook profile. Becoming “Facebook official” – that is, declaring yourself to be “in a relationship” with another specific Facebook user – is a necessary step to serious romance. Of course this means that when a relationship ends, each person must bear the indignity of changing their relationship status, and having this change in status communicated to one’s Facebook friends.

People constantly play with the rules though. When straight single women claim on Facebook that they are “married” to another female friend, for instance, it is understood by their friends to be, on the one hand, a joke, but on the other hand a genuine expression of their love for one another. But when one of these friends gets a boyfriend, she has to “divorce” her female friend on Facebook in order to publicly acknowledge being “in a relationship” with her new partner – at which point the divorced friend is faced with the dilemma of resolving her new (fake) status on Facebook.

Facebook breakups provide a wonderful example of how we all unthinkingly employ media ideologies; we invest certain media forms with their own qualities. Different media mean different things to different people. For young people being interviewed by Gershon, email seemed a very stiff and formal medium, akin to that of a written letter, and it would be positively insulting to receive a missive of intimacy via a method that was more typically used to communicate with one’s lecturers. In story after story, Gershon hears that how people were broken up with – which medium was chosen – was essential to managing a painful process. “Why does it matter if you break up by text message, by Facebook, or face to face?” she asks. “It matters because people are social analysts of their own lives, because people have developed complex interpretations of how a medium affects a message.”

These “idioms of practice” – methods that particular groups or communities of people develop to communicate with one another – are variable across and within different communities, but many people seem to overlook the particularity of their own idioms, assuming instead that the medium has some inherent characteristic that determines the nature of the messages it carries. Problems ensue when couples with different understandings unthinkingly encode their messages with extra meaning because they choose the wrong medium. People can be constantly reading and re-reading the messages to analyse what the other person is thinking, and what their relationship “is.” Some people get stuck in certain media forms and want to switch, but somehow can’t – they might be stuck in a rut of texting their lovers, but cannot move over to the more committed and personal medium of calling one another on the phone. Others obsessively collect snippets of data from the Facebook profiles of their previous partners to try to come to terms with their breakup. Frustratingly, these new media give many people just enough information about their lovers to over-analyse, with not quite enough context for them to be confident about their decoding. Without losing the sense of enjoyment in sharing these reflections on love and break-ups, Gershon takes them seriously as teaching moments about the role of media technologies as a communicative space to be managed in the building – and destruction – of romantic relationships.

MILLER and Gershon both make compelling arguments for the genuine social significance of seemingly superficial online “friendship.” These are real relationships, as well as virtual ones. Those who doubt the veracity of such claims might want to consider how difficult it is to pin down a definition for friendship in the first place. Friendship is so important that in English, even before the rise of Facebook, the word friend was spoken and written more than any other relational term, including mother or father. We all take for granted that friends are an important part of life, but what determines a friend, and how does friendship differ from other sorts of relationships? Are there evolutionary benefits to friendship that other interpersonal connections don’t offer? And is there perhaps even a brain chemistry associated with friendship that differs from feelings of romantic love or family obligation?

These questions are approached from a distinctly different angle in Daniel J. Hruschka’s Friendship: Development, Ecology, and Evolution of a Relationship. It turns out that friendship is a very understudied topic. Hruschka considers the vast array of data from the social and biological sciences that might be brought together to try to define what human friendship is across cultures, and what sort of function it may serve. Experimental and observational studies have shown that friends don’t base their relationships on keeping a score of who does what for whom, or on the repaying of favours, or even on a calculation of future usefulness. Such research is supported by the evidence of anthropologists working among different cultures around the world; friends are actually less likely to worry about paying one another back for favours or services than are strangers or acquaintances.

Hruschka suggests that “friends are intrinsically motivated to share and help when the opportunity arises… Friends appear to disregard many of the signs that strangers and acquaintances cling to when making decisions to help one another.” This is difficult for evolutionary theorists to grapple with; it seems hard to account for such altruistic behaviour, because leaving oneself so vulnerable to the abuses of false friends doesn’t seem, at first glance, to mesh well with the survival of the fittest. Yet the anthropological record suggests that a concept of friendship – that is, relationships between people who are not family, but who feel a bond and would freely help each other – does exist across all human cultures.

There are, though, some big differences in how friendship is expressed. In the United States, for instance, personal disclosure and treating people informally are marks of true friendship; in other cultures sharing secrets may be unimportant, and choosing one’s friends freely may be irrelevant. But Hruschka finds a series of commonalities across the many accounts of friendship compiled for his study. Friends help one another, and can especially be called on in times of need. Often friends exchange gifts. It seems important that friendship is defined by having positive feelings for one another and by the potential for helping, supporting and understanding one another: we care for our friends not because of what they do, but because of what they would do if necessary, and because of how they feel about us.

On reflection, it seems so obvious that friends are at least as important as family, which makes it all the more interesting that anthropologists have largely neglected friendship in favour of the obsessive study of kinship. Trawling through the world’s largest database of anthropological materials (the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University), Hruschka found that references to kinship were twelve times as common as those to friendship. So one would hope that the rise of social networking sites like Facebook, which invoke the language of friendship to create a market of people using their product, will inspire scholars following in the footsteps of Miller and Gershon to reconsider the importance of friendship as a social category more broadly. I don’t believe that becoming Facebook friends is a mere simulation of friendship; rather, I think the very appeal of Facebook friendship gives us a clue to the vital kind of connection that friendship represents.

More than two and a half years have passed since Anabel died – a positive age in the era of new media trends – but many of her friends continue to write to her Facebook profile. I know it is a source of comfort to Anabel’s mother and daughter to read about how people continue to remember her, so I don’t think the technological ease with which such messages of support can be expressed diminishes their inherent value. Anabel doesn’t exactly live on through Facebook, but certainly a collective memory of her is materialised there, and as life goes on for the rest of us, our changing circumstances can be measured against the reassuring, if saddening, knowledge that she is still our “friend.” •

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